Curiouser and Curiouser with Kao Kalia Yang

When A Map into the World found its way to my desk last year, I had to remind myself to breathe. This gem of a book cap­tures feel­ings of love and friend­ship in a way that cross­es gen­er­a­tions and speaks to each of our hearts. What else had she writ­ten, I won­dered? Her mem­oir for grownups, The Late­home­com­er: a Hmong Fam­i­ly Mem­oir, caused quite a stir when it was pub­lished in 2009. She fol­lowed that book with a book about her father, The Song Poet. If you haven’t read them yet, I high­ly rec­om­mend that you do so. Kali­a’s lan­guage is not only lyri­cal and soul-touch­ing, but her vision is pierc­ing, her sto­ry­telling astute. Her newest pic­ture book, The Shared Room, will be released in June. It is the sto­ry of a fam­i­ly’s grief at the loss of a child, a sis­ter, a daugh­ter. It is a book that will help you when your own need to grieve presents itself. The Shared Room will encour­age your chil­dren to devel­op their own empa­thy. We are for­tu­nate that Kalia gen­er­ous­ly answered our ques­tions about the work she does and how she does it.

What does your work­space look like?

I have a white desk before a white framed win­dow. There is a big fire­bush on the right side of the house and it is so big and tall that it now tan­gles with my per­spec­tive of the world out­side. In front of me, there’s a qui­et street. The house across the street is well-tend­ed but most­ly emp­ty; its own­ers live on a farm in a state down south and vis­it only once or twice a year. Our mutu­al neigh­bors, a lone­ly father and son, take care of their yard. It is lush, an even green. My own yard is not so lush or so green. The dan­de­lions love my yard. They flour­ish here among the grass: yel­low blooms, low to the ground. I stand at this desk or I sit before it and I write when­ev­er I can.

Kao Kalia Yang's office

Kao Kalia Yang’s office

What memen­tos do you have near your writ­ing space?

There is a pic­ture on the wall to the right of my desk. It was a wed­ding gift from a men­tor of my husband’s, whose hus­band, Peter Leach, took it at the Japan­ese gar­den at Como Con­ser­va­to­ry — when they heard that I loved the place. There’s dark water reflect­ing the tan­gling of tree limbs, bare bark, ris­ing from green growth among big rocks, set against a back­drop of dark­er green. In the mir­ror of the still water, tree debris float like speck­les across ancient glass, there is a touch of sky, against its light, we see the reflec­tion of the limbs. I know the gar­den well but I do not know where this pho­to was tak­en and I like it that way. There is a touch of mys­tery, a sto­ry that I don’t know even as I love what I can see, what it remem­bers, what it recalls.

What are your writ­ing tools of choice?

I jour­nal before I write. I write on my lap­top. My jour­nal­ing is for me. I use up note­books, some actu­al diaries and spe­cial books I’ve received as gifts, but I’m not choosy. I’ll hap­pi­ly take up a reg­u­lar note­book and work my way through, line by line, page by page. I write with the every­day pens I find lit­tered about the house, the free ones that I receive at writ­ing con­fer­ences, the few from col­lege pres­i­dents giv­en to me as gifts, the many from old­er men and women who come to my read­ings, ask for my sig­na­ture, and give me as a token of their gen­eros­i­ty, the writ­ing uten­sils from their purs­es and pock­ets. There is no greater sat­is­fac­tion for me than to see a pen’s ink run out in my hands, to see the words fad­ing into the impres­sions I’ve made on the paper. I jour­nal the mun­dane details of my life, upload all man­ners of feel­ings and thoughts that cloud my head, shift my focus, and store my prob­lems away before I tack­le the work of actu­al writ­ing on the lap­top. Jour­nal­ing is my way of meet­ing the world as I know it before jour­ney­ing to worlds unknown to me.

Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang (pho­to cred­it: Shee Yang)

Do you have a rou­tine or a rit­u­al about writ­ing? A cer­tain time of day, a way you begin? Do you write every day?

Before I had chil­dren, there were things I loved to do in the morn­ings. I liked to water my col­lec­tion of orchids, my vines, the grow­ing things around me. I made a cup of hot mint tea and admired the things out­side of my win­dows, one at a time. When I made it to my writ­ing space, I turned on my feet warmer (I work in Min­neso­ta!) and then I opened my jour­nal and I start­ed there, then tran­si­tioned to my lap­top. I sipped from the hot cup, watched the steam rise and rise and rise and the words flowed from my fin­gers just like air.

After I had chil­dren, the over­whelm­ing feel­ing was of exhaus­tion and while time stopped at all hours of the night with the most imme­di­ate child in my arms, each time I made it to the page at all, whether only to my jour­nal or that and the lap­top, all I could do was pon­der the sweet, gift of sleep. I was so tired all the time. To stay up, I shift­ed the mint tea into Earl Gray. I turned off the feet warmer. I cracked my neck. I hunched over my desk and I made myself work. Writ­ing became hard work. All the rit­u­als and rou­tines I’d loved were replaced but the ele­ments I need­ed to ensure work could be done.

Now that the chil­dren are big­ger (a six-year-old girl, iden­ti­cal twin boys who are four) I’m some­where in between giv­ing into what I love each time I write and doing the work I need to do to ensure that the peo­ple I love are sup­port­ed by the work I do. I have dis­cov­ered that the only rit­u­al I need is the jour­nal­ing before the actu­al writ­ing, the depar­ture from where I am phys­i­cal­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, intel­lec­tu­al­ly into the place I want to go on the page.

How does an idea gath­er ener­gy for you to turn it into an essay or book?

Every essay I have writ­ten or book I’ve worked on first began as a feel­ing I car­ried at some state of the world, some lived expe­ri­ences, some sto­ry some­one shared that pierced me. I car­ry it for hours, days, months, some­times years until there is no more room inside of me to house them any­more. Then, I turn to what I know to oust these feel­ings into the page, offer them to the world in the hopes that they will find a home else­where, live as a brethren and a friend — not one more thing I must car­ry. Each thing I write first began as occu­pied ter­ri­to­ry inside of me, a feel­ing that holds my heart tight and squeezes and squeezes until there is rupture/rapture.

You have now had two pic­ture books pub­lished. How do you go about this kind of writ­ing in a way that is dif­fer­ent than writ­ing mem­oir or biog­ra­phy or the essays you write for The On Being Project?

Pic­ture books are an offer­ing to enter into a gen­tler space. They are a con­fined form; all I have is 32 pages to do the work of the sto­ry. They are col­lab­o­ra­tive. The words I write must have the abil­i­ty to con­jure up not only a set­ting and char­ac­ters, but a sto­ry in the mind of anoth­er artist. Where I begin is only that: a beginning.

When I write for adults, it is very dif­fer­ent. I have more room to play in exper­i­men­tal forms and page num­bers. I’m not rely­ing on another’s artis­tic con­tri­bu­tion to make the book whole. I am in charge of the descrip­tions that will evoke set­ting, char­ac­ters, and the sto­ry in my read­ers. I am in charge of the begin­ning, the mid­dle, and the end of the sto­ry (of course with the assis­tance of edi­tors, copy edi­tors, and the pub­lish­ing team).

So, when I write for chil­dren, I have to write with a lighter hand, a more restrained hand, but also one that can fly at a moment’s notice. I have to leave room for the illus­tra­tor to enter with their imag­i­na­tion and their con­tri­bu­tions. I have to remem­ber that the world of chil­dren is a ten­der thing. I have to think about the work of a page turn very dif­fer­ent­ly than I do in the world of adult writ­ing; adults are chas­ing sto­ries, caught in the grip of lan­guage, chil­dren are curi­ous beings, their page turns are more like the end­ing of a line of poet­ry; it is a leap of faith, a space where any­thing is pos­si­ble. It is a fact in the world of children’s lit­er­a­ture than any­thing can hap­pen to a child at any point in time; time and space are not gov­erned by sim­ple knowl­edge; every children’s book author is mak­ing fire, blow­ing, blow­ing, gen­tle breath into embers, push­ing kin­dling close, hop­ing to light a fire for­ev­er. It is a dif­fer­ent respon­si­bil­i­ty entirely.

What is the process you go through to find the right words for a pic­ture book?

At first, I play with a sto­ry. I begin some­where and I take it all the way to the end. I can do this with pic­ture books because they are a short­er form. Once I have the first draft, I read it and see if I’m moved by it. If I am, I share it with trust­ed fam­i­ly and see if they are moved by it, too. I’m not look­ing for edits at this point. I’m not edit­ing myself. I’m look­ing for emo­tion­al hon­esty, hop­ing to con­nect and to build a strong emo­tion, to see if sto­ry I’ve writ­ten is alive. Once I deter­mine that there is indeed the spark of life, then I share it with a pro­fes­sion­al, an edi­tor or an agent, and see how they feel. If they are in, then we are in. We have some­thing to work with and work from, to direct and to pro­duce. I’m not mar­ried to the par­tic­u­lars of my first drafts, but I’m def­i­nite­ly look­ing at the draft to see if I can com­mit for­ev­er. Once I com­mit, I will do every­thing with­in my pow­er to make it the most healthy and beau­ti­ful and life sus­tain­ing thing I can.

Do you pic­ture your audi­ence while you are writ­ing your books? Are you aware of the read­ers with whom you’re shar­ing your mind and imagination?

I don’t pic­ture my audi­ence when I’m writ­ing at all. I don’t think about them seri­ous­ly. I know they are out there. I know they can be any­one. I want to keep that sur­prise alive in my writ­ing. I want an old man to pick up one of my pic­ture books and see his long lost grand­child peek­ing from the pages. I want a lit­tle girl some­where to meet one of my sto­ries and find some dream that they’ve had but couldn’t quite artic­u­late. I want that mag­ic to per­me­ate into my process so I nev­er lim­it my audi­ences to the folk I can imag­ine would be inter­est­ed in my work.

With that said, I do take very seri­ous­ly my respon­si­bil­i­ties as a writer, my oblig­a­tions to my read­ers. I want to ensure that the mind and the imag­i­na­tion they are tan­gling with is as pure and as unadul­ter­at­ed as pos­si­ble, the real deal.

What have you dis­cerned about the illustrator’s role in cre­at­ing a pic­ture book?

Illus­tra­tors are magi­cians and wiz­ards and witch­es and fairies and they have pow­er like ghosts to haunt, like vam­pires to suck blood from ink, the sacred abil­i­ty to trans­form the world of a writer’s sto­ry for­ev­er and always. An illus­tra­tor is car­ry­ing the oth­er side of the pole. Between us is a boil­ing caul­dron of melt­ed gold sea­soned with pearls, dia­mond, and all man­ners of pre­cious­ness. We are bal­anc­ing that trea­sure between us. We have to walk in-step, keep our bal­ance, hold our end of the bar­gain, and make sure there’s no trip­ping. I have so much respect and trust in illus­tra­tors and their tal­ent. They make books beau­ti­ful. I’m so thank­ful they are in our world. But do I under­stand them? Not real­ly. I also pre­fer it this way: to pre­serve the mys­tery and the mag­ic of their process.

Kalia, thank you for shar­ing your­self with our read­ers. I know they will grow to love your books as much as I do.

Intrigued? Please vis­it Kao Kalia Yang’s web­site for more infor­ma­tion and a selec­tion of her books.

books by Kao Kalia Yang

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